The desecration of our military heritage at Owers Corner by DFAT is now complete with the recent installation of electricity poles around the unauthorised memorial graffiti on the site.
Owers Corner, located at the end of the 40 km road from Port Moresby, is the gateway to the Kokoda Trail. The hosting of APEC by the PNG Government next month provided a unique opportunity for the construction of a Kokoda Trail Visitors Centre to honour and interpret the historical significance of the place and to showcase the culture of the Koiari landowners.
It would have been a major attraction for the thousands of APEC delegates visiting PNG and would quickly become the country’s most popular tourism destination. It would have created a sustainable economic future for the Koiari people living on the Sogeri plateau.
But it was not to be because Australian envirocrats embedded in the PNG ‘Kokoda Initiative’ seem to be ideologically opposed to commemorating our wartime heritage. They will argue this is not the case but the facts suggest otherwise.
Australian Government officials from Environment and DFAT have been insitu for 10 years and have burned through more that $60 million in taxpayer funded aid. The management system they put in place for the Kokoda Trail has collapsed to such an extent the PNG Minister for Environment and Conservation had to establish his own ‘Kokoda Initiative Ministerial Committee’ to try and arrest the decline. Unfortunately he seemed to have been poorly advised by the Australian’s embedded in his Department and Prime Minister Peter O’Neill had to then call for a review to try and stop the rot. (more…)
Not a single management protocol was put in place by the Australian CEO during his three year tenure. There was no database; no campsite booking system; no trek itinerary management system; no campsite development program; no trail maintenance plan; no effective ranger system; or any development programs to assist local villagers in value-adding to the emerging industry.
The recent departure of the PNG CEO from the Kokoda Track Authority (KTA) brings an end to a sorry saga of Australian mismanagement along the Kokoda Trail.
Prior to the arrival of Australian officials in 2008 the emerging Kokoda trekking industry was managed by Warren Bartlett, a former Kiap on a PNG salary of $12,500. During his tenure trekker numbers grew from 365 in 2002 to 5621 in 2008 – a massive increase of 1,440%. Bartlett had no staff but was assisted by a part-time local secretary.
Under a ‘Joint’ Understanding signed by the Australian and PNG Governments in 2008 Bartlett was replaced by an Australian CEO on an eye-watering six-figure salary by the Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (DEWHA). He was provided with a 10-fold increase in staff numbers and a multi-million dollar budget.
The Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA), which has responsibility for our WW1 heritage at Gallipoli and the Western Front in Europe, was not included in the ‘Joint’ Understanding apart from the allocation of $1 million for unspecified purposes. There is no evidence of any of this money being allocated to the development of a Master Plan to protect and interpret our military heritage along the trail.
It is also remains unclear why DVA are responsible for our WW1 military heritage at Gallipoli and Environment/DFAT are responsible for our WW11 heritage at Kokoda.
After a decade insitu by DEWHA the results speak for themselves. Despite a conga-line of Australian environmental consultants and more than $60 million of taxpayers funds trekker numbers declined by 36% from 5621 in 2008 to 3597 in 2012. (more…)
School holidays offer great opportunities for Australian ‘blackbirders’ operating on the Kokoda Trail.
Blackbirding was a form of slavery which saw Papua New Guineans coerced into working as cheap labour on Queensland sugar plantations in the late 19th Century before it was outlawed.
However the practice has mutated into various forms since then and now involves shady operators who have cashed in on the Kokoda trekking industry over the past decade. Papua New Guinea is a governance free zone for blackbirders who are not subject to the same scrutiny they would receive in Australia.
The current dysfunction and debasement of the Kokoda Trail management authority provides them with free rein to promote themselves as legitimate. They are akin to a malarial parasite running through a quinine free bloodstream. There are no limits to the extent they can exploit local Papua New Guinean guides, carriers and villagers who live in a subsistence economy and are desperate for work.
They are slick and hard to detect. They have established their own ‘Kokoda Tour Operators Association’ to disguise their exploitation and provide a form of self-legitimacy. Their websites boast of emotive ‘passion for our diggers’ amid claims to be ‘historians – explorers – adventurers’ even through there is no prior record of their commitment to these ideals through previous active service or support to veterans’ organizations.
It seems more than coincidence that their faux passion happened to coincide with the opportunity to make a dollar out of it. (more…)
The Kokoda Tour Operators Association (KTOA) – established to protect the interests of a small group of Australian trek operators (11 of the 36 licensed operators) – has advised that in 2017 ‘KTA permit fees were averaged out at K320 as some operators claimed 50% discount on School Student treks’.
A closer look at the KTA trekker statistics for 2017 reveals that of the 371 claims for the 50% student discount – 312 (or a whopping 85%) came from KTOA members.
The 50% Student Discount was put in place by an Australian operator when the PNG Kokoda Track Authority (KTA) was first established in 2004. It was wrong then – and it is wrong now!
This discount means subsistence villagers along the Kokoda Trail have to subsidise wealthy Australian private school students.
This is akin to cheating subsistence villagers out of their fair share of benefits from the Kokoda trekking industry – and as we have just seen from the Australian cricket team – Australians don’t like cheats.
The current dysfunction of the KTA (which is currently under review) allows unscrupulous Australian trek operators to exploit this loophole by continuing to claim the 50% student discount.
If the KTOA wishes to have any semblance of credibility it should make a public announcement that its Australian members will no longer claim this immoral discount.
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The Kokoda Tour Operators Association (KTOA) was established by a small group of Australian travel operators to protect their financial interests along the Kokoda Trail in PNG.
The welfare of local PNG porters and villagers is obviously not part of their agenda and their use of fake research to justify their exploitation is contrary to the spirit of Kokoda.
This exploitation includes the overloading of porters; abuse of their welfare; and the claiming of shameful student discounts on trek fees.
The KTOA website advises that ‘Members of the association collectively represent more than 75% of trekker number across Kokoda’.
This is fake information. The KTOA membership represents just 30 percent of the 36 trek operators licensed by the PNG Kokoda Track Authority (KTA). Three of the 11 KTOA members appear to be inactive.
According to KTA records a total of 3267 trekkers crossed the trail in 2017 – 2053 (62%) went with KTOA members.
Overloading of PNG Porters
The most abhorrent practice the KTOA advocates is the overloading of porters by its members and their use of fake research to justify it.
In September 2017 a PNG porter engaged by a member of the KTOA died on the trail – according to the PNG Kokoda Track Authority (KTA) Ranger at Owers Corner he was overloaded with a 28 kg backpack. Rather than addressing the problem the KTOA accused the KTA Ranger of altering his records without providing any evidence to support their claim. A preliminary investigation by PNG Police Sergeant, Max Maso contradicts their claim:
‘It is evident that the group on this particular trip . . . engaged by . . . (KTOA tour operator) . . . were all overloaded in breach to Code of Conduct stipulated under this code’.
Rather than accepting that there is a problem with the overloading of porters the KTOA went into damage control after Adventure Kokoda advised that the maximum weight allowed for the PNG wartime carriers in 1942 was 18 kg.
On 26 February 2018 the KTOA posted an irrational response to this fact on Facebook:
‘Any operator[i] continuing to use references to conditions and weights carried by carriers on the Kokoda Track in 1942 is still living in the dark colonial days long past. Clearly the welfare of the carriers of the Kokoda campaign was not of primary concern of their colonial masters.
‘Suggestions made recently that the carriers during the war were restricted to carrying 18kgs is a gross misrepresentation of the brutal conditions in which the carriers worked.’
The reference KTOA quoted to justify their exploitation of PNG porters was an unofficial essay written by a junior summer vacation student at the Australian War Memorial!![ii].
The facts are anything but a ‘gross misrepresentation of the brutal conditions in which the carriers worked’ as stated by the KTOA. (more…)
Trekking Kokoda will never be the same without the presence of distinguished elder, Faole Bokoi, to welcome trekkers as they enter Menari village.
Faole was a former luluai (clan leader), village constable and mail carrier under Australian colonial rule. It is unlikely that he was a wartime carrier due to his estimated age. The Australian New Guinea Army Unit recruited boys over the age of 16 years as carriers. Faole would therefore have been 98 years old at the time of his passing. The average life span for PNG males is currently 62 years. It would have meant that Faole would have been 73 years of age when I first met him 25 years ago. I would have estimated his age to be 50-55 years at that time.
This is not meant to detract from the value of his service to his people as the task of carrying mailbags from Owers Corner to the changeover point on the crest between Crossing 1 and Templeton’s Crossing would have been arduous and dangerous. After meeting his fellow Orokaiva mail carriers from Kokoda there would be an exchange of mailbags and Faole would return to Owers Corner.
Faole was a wonderful caring man and a respected elder in Menari.
We are proud of the fact that we were able to contribute to his welfare through our trekkers donating approximately $2,000 each year for the opportunity to be photographed with him. We also paid for an operation on the feet of his grand-daughter, Nancy who was a baby at the time. I recently met Nancy at Owers Corner and she is now a normal healthy teenager as a result of the operation. (more…)